The Top Ten in Europe. Chapter 6: France



Friday is Top day! Every other Friday, Artprice publishes a theme-based auction ranking. This week, we reveal the top ten bids ever made in France – a true celebration of modernity.

The Top Ten in Europe. Chapter 6: France
Rank Artist Hammer Price Artwork Sale
1 Pablo PICASSO $47,400,000 Les noces de Pierrette (1905) 1989-11-30 Binoche-Godeau PARIS
2 Amedeo MODIGLIANI $46,650,450 Tête (c.1910-1912) 2010-06-14 Christie’s PARIS
3 Henri MATISSE $41,046,400 Les coucous, tapis bleu et rose (1911) 2009-02-23 Christie’s Paris & Pierre Bergé PARIS
4 Constantin BRANCUSI $33,350,200 Madame L.R. (c.1914/17) 2009-02-23 Christie’s Paris & Pierre Bergé PARIS
5 Piet MONDRIAAN $24,627,840 Composition avec bleu, rouge, jaune et noir (1922) 2009-02-23 Christie’s Paris & Pierre Bergé PARIS
6 Francis BACON $17,943,760 Portrait of Muriel Belcher (1961) 2007-12-12 Sotheby’s PARIS
7 Piet MONDRIAAN $16,418,560 Composition avec grille 2 (1918) 2009-02-23 Christie’s Paris & Pierre Bergé PARIS
8 Amedeo MODIGLIANI $16,336,800 Portrait de Paul Alexandre (1911/12) 2014-06-04 Sotheby’s PARIS
9 Joan MIRO $13,427,540 Blue Star (1927) 2007-12-21 Aguttes (S.V.V.) NEUILLY-SUR-SEINE
10 Fernand LÉGER $13,083,540 La tasse de thé 2009-02-23 Christie’s Paris & Pierre Bergé PARIS
copyright © 2014

Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, Brancusi, Mondriaan, Miró,, Léger… great modern artists such as these have bestowed prestige on a French market whose top end is dominated by foreign auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s.
The best sales recorded in France are the preserve of masterpieces created in the first thirty years of the 20th century. Only one later work is able to sneak in between the $13 million paid for Léger’s La Tasse de thé and the $47 million commanded by Picasso’s Noces de Pierrette. This is the Portrait of Muriel Belcher, painted by Francis Bacon in 1961.


20 years separate the two best sales

France’s auction record was set in 1989 with the sale of a masterpiece from Picasso‘s Blue Period. This was a time when the Hôtel Drouot auction house dominated the French market before its prestige and omnipotence were diluted by the arrival of foreign competitors. At that time, Christie’s and Sotheby’s were not allowed to hold sales in France. The sale of the Noces de Pierrette for $47.2 million by Binoche-Godeau takes us back to that frenetic period when the Modern Art market was booming thanks to the arrival of major Asian investors. Indeed it was one of these investors, Tomonori Tsurumaki, who carried off Picasso’s blue gem, making it one of the world’s twenty most expensive paintings.
The market collapsed in the early Nineties. Drouot retained its cachet but struggled to compete when the French market was opened up in the wake of the law passed on 10 July 2000 and in the face of the upheavals suffered by the market during the first decade of the new millennium. It would be another 20 years before another work came close to Picasso’s record.
Christie’s chose Paris as the setting for its sale of Modigliani‘s Tête, a rare piece standing 64 centimetres high, sculpted around 1910-1912. Modigliani’s sculptures were rare commodities (he only produced 27), so until that point all his records had been set by paintings. The elegance of the Tête triggered keen bidding among the world’s major collectors and the piece finally sold for the equivalent of $46.65 million, an auction record for any kind of Modigliani work. Another Tête (10 centimetres taller) recently broke this record on 4 November 2014 at Sotheby’s New York (sold for $63 million).


A look back at the Pierre Bergé & Yves Saint Laurent collection

France’s “sale of the century” (as it was billed at the time) remains the sale of the Pierre Bergé and Yves Saint Laurent collection. This sale was organised by Christie’s between 23 and 25 February 2009 at the Grand Palais in Paris. In just two days, it produced half of the top ten sales in French auction history. The economic climate was hardly conducive to record-setting, as the sale coincided with Wall Street’s lowest point for 12 years (S&P 500 at 743.33 points). But these difficulties were offset by the extraordinary quality of the collection, its prestigious origins and the distinguished setting of the sale. All this allowed Christie’s to generate $480 million, including buyer’s premium, of which $265 million came from artworks alone, representing 67% of the total proceeds of the Parisian auction market for 2008.

World records were set for works by Matisse, Brancusi, Mondrian, De Chirico, Duchamp, Klee, Ensor and Géricault.

More than half of Fernand Léger‘s annual revenues came with just six strikes of the hammer on 23 February 2009 in Paris. This champion of modernity, who described himself as “the most Cubist of all”, carried off $13 million for his monumental seated nude in La tasse de thé (1921), a painting in the tradition of the imposing classical nudes that Pablo Picasso was painting at the time. In 2009 the world record for a sale at auction went to Henri Matisse when $41 million changed hands for Les Coucous, tapis bleu et rose (1911). Piet Mondriaan was represented by a neo-plastic work that had rarely before come on the market, Composition avec bleu, rouge, jaune et noir (1922). It doubled its estimate to sell for the equivalent of $16.4 million.

The Pierre Bergé sale could have allowed Picasso to claim another place in this Top 10. But unfortunately his Cubist painting Instruments de musique sur un guéridon (1914/1915) failed to find a buyer within its estimate range of €25-€30 million ($32-$38 million). The work has not reappeared in the sale rooms since this setback.

The decision to sell such works in Paris seems to have been a strategic one. A top-quality painting such as Francis Bacon’s Portrait of Muriel Belcher (1961) would have been just one museum piece among many at one of the prestigious sales in London or New York. But in Paris it is a rarity that stands out, attracts a great deal of media attention and benefits from the global network of the auction house selected to hold the sale – which still tends to be Christie’s or Sotheby’s.